Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Utah, and Congressman Jim Matheson, D-Utah, discuss the need to battle antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA.

The enemy is aggressive, stubborn and deadly. That's why the federal government needs to launch an offensive, according to Rep. Jim Matheson, who was in Salt Lake City Friday to outline policies to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The problem, says Matheson, D-Utah, is not just the wily superbugs themselves but haphazard control measures, uncoordinated data collecting and not enough research into new drugs. Last fall he introduced legislation, the STAAR (Strategies to Address Antimicrobial Resistance) Act, and now he's introducing a bill to raise awareness of the most well-known of the bacteria, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

This is not "the scare of the month," emphasizes Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah, who spoke with Matheson at a press conference at Primary Children's Medical Center. Bacteria are constantly morphing to resist antibiotics, and MRSA itself has been around for years. But since the beginning of this century, the rates of MRSA have increased.

Suddenly MRSA isn't just something you might catch in the hospital but something you might pick up in the high school gym.

Primary Children's last year saw 170 cases of MRSA, about half of them "community-acquired." That's six times the number of cases seen in 2000. Although there are still a few antibiotics that work, the time "is not that far away" when even these drugs won't be effective, Pavia said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 94,000 cases of drug-resistant infections now occur annually in the United States, including an estimated 18,000 deaths.

The STARR Act would authorize the federal government to coordinate the collecting of data about cases of resistant bacteria, coordinate antimicrobial resistance research at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reauthorize the Antimicrobial Resistance Task Force, and study what control measures work and which don't.

For example, if a student dies of MRSA, as happened in Virginia last fall, does it make sense to shut down all the schools in the school district, Pavia asks. Should a state mandate that every hospital patient be tested for MRSA — an expensive tactic, Pavia says — as Illinois has done?

Primary Children's currently isolates MRSA patients, and requires that the medical personal treating those patients use gloves. The hospital has also recently stepped up its hand-washing campaign, Pavia said. The rate of of hospital-acquired MRSA at Primary Children's is lower than at most hospitals, he said.

Matheson's STAAR Act has been endorsed by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, American Public Health Association and other groups of health professionals.

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